(revised July 16, 2020)
Jennifer Ho is professor of ethnic studies and director of the Center for Humanities & the Arts at the University of Colorado Boulder, and president of the Association for Asian American Studies.
This outline of anti-Asian racism is adapted from a slide deck that was developed to help educate people about anti-Asian racism that has emerged in the wake of the COVID-19 global pandemic. I have focused on racism in the US, but anti-Asian racism is a global phenomenon. Feel free to share widely and to add your own slides. Click here to download the slide deck in pdf form.
- Racism is a system where one racial group dominates/has power over others—the Dismantling Racism site has a useful definition
- Racism is institutional – it is power plus prejudice
- Racism is not the same as talking about race
- Racism in the U.S. has taken the form of
- Trans-Atlantic slave trade and the enslavement of people from African nations
- American Indian dispossession of land and colonization
- The World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans
- Targeting Latinx populations at U.S. southern borders
- Housing, Marriage, Educational discrimination whereby entire populations, races, are kept out of housing markets, are unable to freely marry, and don’t have access to educational institutions.
Anti-Asian Racism: A very brief history
- Anti-Asian racism has existed from the time the first wave of Chinese immigrants came to the U.S. in the 19th century first in search of gold and then when they were recruited to build the Transcontinental Railroad
- Chinese were vilified and demonized in the U.S., accused of eating vermin (rats) and engaging in pagan religious practices (Confucianism). Generally they were associated with filth and disease, often because they were forced to live in overcrowded quarters (what became Chinatowns in industrial/poor neighborhoods), where disease ran rampant and proper hygiene unobtainable
- Anti-Chinese sentiment grew in the U.S. in the 19th century with accusations that Chinese laborers were stealing jobs from white working men
- Anti-Chinese sentiment became part of the Yellow Peril language
- Yellow Peril refers to a general fear, mistrust, and hatred of, first, Chinese in the U.S., and then these negative sentiments were transferred to other Asian-ethnic immigrant groups: Japanese, Korean and Indian
- Yellow Peril sentiment fueled many anti-Asian U.S. initiatives, such as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the Gentleman’s Agreement, and the Cable Act
- The most important thing to note is that Yellow Peril sentiment reduces Asians to always being foreign, never considered American
Asians becoming Americans
- Historically anti-Chinese sentiment became anti-Asian racism once the ethnic particularities of being Chinese in the U.S. were flattened into the racial category of “Oriental” (past) now, ASIAN
- [Note: NO ONE uses the term “Oriental” anymore—it is akin to calling African Americans ”Negro”—don’t do it]
- Asians in the U.S. eventually became Asian Americans, officially once racist restrictions against immigration and naturalization were lifted but also culturally and socially as the U.S. became more accepting of non-European people being considered American
- However, a sizable number of people in the U.S. still regard Asian Americans as foreign rather than as U.S. citizens—which contributes to anti-Asian racism
Vincent Chin & 9/11 backlash
- Two instances that show how Asian Americans continue to be seen as “foreign” rather than as U.S. citizens and fully American:
- Vincent Chin—a Chinese American engineer who was brutally murdered by two white men who accused him of stealing their jobs during the Detroit auto industry slump
- The on-going harassment and demonization of South Asian Americans, Muslim Americans, and Arab Americans in the wake of 9/11—many of the people in the aforementioned groups have described harassment and racism that have led to fear, stigmatization and murder
Why saying “Chinese Virus” is racist
- The World Health Organization (WHO) has been clear in explaining why the official name for the novel coronavirus is COVID-19. They want to avoid the stigmatization that has happened in the past when diseases have been affiliated with geographic regions or ethnicities
- Though the virus may have first originated in Wuhan, China, it has become a global pandemic. And as the WHO and many other organizations have noted, to mis-name the virus and call it by its point of origin engages in racist practices of blaming a region and by extension a group of people with this disease.
- When government officials and private citizens insist on calling it “Chinese Virus” because the 1918 flu pandemic was referred to as the “Spanish Flu,” this reinforces the problem with using “Chinese Virus” since the 1918 flu pandemic did not originate in Spain, so the logic does not hold up
- And when people say it is not racist to say that the virus originated in China, that would be true if we lived in a world in which systemic racism were not still an issue and anti-Asian racism did not still persist.
- Using the phrase “Chinese Virus” is done deliberately to blame a country and people who others continue to associate with disease and filth and where Chinese Americans and Asian Americans by extension are still seen as foreign.
Incidents of Anti-Asian harassment/racism
- Since the spread of COVID-19, anti-Chinese and anti-Asian harassment,globally, has been on the rise
- In the U.S., incidents of anti-Asian racism have resulted in the following:
- Asian Americans are sharing stories of harassment, prejudice and racism
- The NY state attorney general has created a special hotline for people to report anti-Asian harassment
- Asian American scholars have created a website for people to report incidents of anti-Asian harassment
- Mainstream news outlets are reporting on anti-Asian harassment connected with COVID-19
AAAS Statement about anti-Asian harassment and COVID-19
released early March 2020
The Centers for Disease Control recently announced that the Novel Coronavirus/COVID-19 may spread in the United States. As people take precautions to manage their health (the two biggest precautions are frequent handwashing and staying home if you are sick), the Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS) wants to also acknowledge the rise of anti-Asian (especially anti-Chinese) harassment that many Asian Americans (particularly those who look East Asian) are experiencing. As an organization dedicated to the study of Asian Americans, we want to be very clear that xenophobia has no place in our communities or workplaces and that harassment of Asians due to fears of the coronavirus are not only unwarranted but sadly part of a longer history of stereotypes associating Asians, especially Chinese, with disease. We stand firm in rejecting anti-Asian bigotry in the guise of people expressing fear of Novel Coronavirus/COVID-19. We also urge people to find resources that will educate them about how to manage their health as well as why their prejudices/biases in assuming all Asians have the virus are rooted in a history of Yellow Peril rhetoric, xenophobia, ableism, and anti-Asian racism. Please encourage your colleagues and friends to explore this open-source syllabus that addresses anti-Asian bias associated with the coronavirus. And please remember: frequent handwashing, not anti-Asian stereotypes/harassment, is your best means of preventing the spread of coronavirus.
Anti-Black Racism & Black Lives Matter
- On May 25, 2020 George Floyd, a Black American, died at the hands of White police officer, Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis. The video recorded by a teenage bystander was viewed around the world and set off a wave of US national and global protests about anti-Black racism, police brutality, and systemic racism -- where people declared that Black Lives Matter.
- Floyd is only one of several thousands (millions) of Black people to die at the hands of White law enforcement/White vigilantes over the last few weeks/months/years/centuries. Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Elijah McClain are others recently killed by anti-Black racism.
- Anti-Black racism is not new; what seems new-ishis the attention people are paying in the midst of COVID-19—the ongoing global protests and demands for defunding the police and reparations for Black people.
Anti-Black/Anti-Asian Racism & White Supremacy
- The current rise of anti-Asian racism feels new, but is not new -- the ferocity/violence is a resurgence of anti-Asian racism that emerges when the US is under “threat” (ex: WWII, Cold War, Viet Nam, 9/11)
- Anti-Asian racism is is not the same as anti-Black racism; however, what both forms of racism share are
- They are both subject to and are in service of White supremacy
- They are both systemic – it’s not about individual people being racist – it’s about the systems and institutions in the US that create conditions where Asians are seen as foreign and Black people are not granted basic humanity and rights.
- If you are learning about anti-Asian racism for the first time, and especially if you identify as Asian American, then you must recognize the ways in which being against anti-Asian racism means you must also fight anti-Black racism
AAAS Solidarity Statement
The Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS) unites in solidarity with our Black family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and co-workers to call for an immediate end to anti-Black racism and the killing of Black people. We are an organization committed to social justice, intersectional analysis, and global human rights. Our fight against anti-Asian pandemic racism is rooted in a common struggle against White supremacy. The recent murders of AhmaudArbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and George Floyd propel us to state, clearly and definitively, that Black lives matter and that we must abolish the militarized police state in which anti-Black racism is embedded. To end global anti-Black racism, we must fight racism in our local communities and educate ourselves and others about the rich history of Black Americans and support, validate, and value Black lives now and always.
The Association for Asian American Studies Board of Directors
How to be an anti-racist ally
- Anyone can be an anti-racist ally: you simply need to both speak and act as an anti-racist and promote and work towards anti-racism
- The first step is educating yourself about the history of racism in the US – and this education is on-going and constant
- The next step is practicing how to talk about issues of race and racism in your communities – don’t just be a bystander, speak out. Remember: not acting racist is not the same asbeing anti-racist
- How you can address anti-Asian racism NOW is to correct people who are calling COVID-19 “Chinese Virus” and explain how it is connected to a longer history of racism against Asian Americans
- You can, for example, share this presentation with them and encourage people to report anti-Asian harassment on this site
- You can attend a Hollaback Bystander training
- Anderson, Carol. White Rage: the Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide. Bloomsbury 2016.
- Hsu, Madeline. Asian American History: A Very Short Introduction.2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2016.
- Kendi, Ibram X. How to Be an Anti-Racist. Penguin 2019.
- Lee, Erika. The Making of Asian America: A History. Simon & Schuster 2015.
- Lopez, Ian Haney. White By Law: the Legal Construction of Race. 10th Anniversary edition. NYU Press 2006.
- Maeda, Daryl. Chains of Babylon: the Rise of Asian America. University of Minnesota Press 2009.
- Ngai, Mae. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton University Press 2014.
- Omi, Michael and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States. Routledge 2014.